Eating Habits: What, When, & Why?

woman sitting on the ground holding different kinds of fruits in her arms

Megan Meyer, PhD, IFIC
co-author Josh Naumann, University of Maryland Dietetic Intern

Our eating habits are influenced by the food we select, timing, and frequency of meals. Let’s dig a little deeper into these factors:

WHAT we should eat:
It’s important to follow the dietary guidelines to ensure that you are consuming adequate proteins, fats, and carbs as well as all the essential vitamins and minerals. Meals should consist of half a plate of fruits and vegetables with the other half broken down into equal parts protein and grains.

Cropped shot of a man chopping vegetables on a countertop

WHEN we should eat:
It has become accepted dogma that you should eat 3 square meals a day in the form of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, recent research has concluded that 3 meals per day is not conducive to weight maintenance; rather 5 (or so) meals per day is ideal. To layer on to this discussion, the topic of intermittent fasting, or going between 16-24 hours between meals, is becoming a popular diet choice for those looking to shake up their weight management routine. This leads us to think: There are so many choices, which approach is right for you?

You may have heard someone say “I eat 5-6 small meals a day- it helps me keep weight off.” But is this actually true or supported by science? Let’s first begin with how many meals should be part of your daily diet.

HOW OFTEN should we eat:
Many studies have looked at the physiological effects consuming 3 meals versus 5 meals per day has on the human body. A recent review has summarized the literature and found that many of the studies were done in different models and populations. As such, it is important to keep these variables in mind when reading and interpreting these studies.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the meal trifecta, was once the main approach to planning out meals. Studies show that consuming a diet with 3 meals spaced throughout the day rather than several small meals spaced throughout the day improved appetite control and increased the resting metabolic rate (RMR). These endpoints, appetite control and RMR, can be extremely relevant markers for long term weight management.

Eating 2 larger meals (breakfast and lunch) throughout the day also proved beneficial for individuals suffering from type 2 diabetes. The authors found that while the larger meals caused a spike in glucose and insulin following a meal, eating two larger meals rather than 6 smaller meals led to overall improved glycemic control throughout the day and reduced body weight.

athletic woman holding an apple in her hand

Interestingly, a recent meta-analysis examined the effects of meal frequency on weight loss in 15 independent studies. While the researchers found that small, frequent meals were positively associated with reductions in fat mass and body fat percentage, further analysis revealed that the positive findings were the result of a single study, lessening the significance of their findings. As such, these findings should be interpreted with this result in mind.

Intermittent Fasting
This topic has gained interest and can be partially attributed to the fact that our ancestors had to adapt physiologically to the changing periods of famine and feast, which required periods of fasting. Intermittent fasting may reduce the oxidative stress which can lead to decreased inflammation, improve blood glucose and lipid levels, and reduced blood pressure. A hypocaloric diet achieved through intermittent fasting was also shown to reduce body weight and body fat in normal, overweight, and obese individuals. Of importance, acknowledging the difference between intermittent and prolonged fasting is key since prolonged fasting can result in health risks such as hypoglycemia.

Mixed salad on a plate

WHY do we eat the way we do?
So why do we eat the way we eat? An International Food Information Council Foundation study demonstrated that eating habits vary depending on our age, gender, family status, and BMI:

  • Age – The younger you are, the more likely you are to select foods based on hunger/thirst signals and taste, often eating until your stomach reaches maximum capacity and your fullness cues are triggered. Lower age is also associated with eating meals somewhere other than home, typically in front of a computer or TV. Older adults tend to put more focus on their meals during the preparation and selection phase, opting for healthy, nutrient-dense food options. As we get older, we also tend to eat less, which puts us at greater risk for health problems as a result of micronutrient and macronutrient deficiencies. They consume the traditional three meals per day at home with family.
  • Gender – Men tend to seek food and drink purely for sustenance whereas women seek foods that taste good.
  • Family Status – When children are present, bonding and building relationships becomes important. Families who eat together also have a higher intake of healthy foods including more fruits and vegetables.
  • BMI – Those with higher BMI (Body Mass Index), a measure of body fat based on height and weight, devoted more time to eating in front of the television or computer and expressed little desire to consume a healthy, balanced diet.

The biggest takeaway is be conscious of what you are eating and habits in combination with following a meal plan that works for you. Find a pattern that works for you and your lifestyle and you’ll be more likely to stick with it long term.

About Megan:

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer, PhD is the Program Manager of Health and Wellness Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC). At IFIC, she is committed to communicating science-based information to media, health professionals, outside organizations, and consumers on topics related to nutrition and health.

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